'Intimate Apparel' by Lynn Nottage
Now onstage at the Firehall Theatre until August 27 as part of the Thousand Islands Playhouse Series
Credit: Randy deKleine-Stimpson. Jonathan Silver as Mr. Marks and Gloria Mampuya as Esther
A Voice Choice. ‘Intimate Apparel’ remains a gripping production with an empathetic vision in direction and highly credible performances.
Playwright Lynn Nottage had been helping her grandmother move from her family home when she came across an old passport photo of Nottage’s great-grandmother. For Lynn, that photo invited questions about her great-grandmother that no living person could answer. ‘Intimate Apparel’ resulted from questions Nottage gathered about her great-grandmother, Ethel, who lived as a seamstress in New York City at the dawn of the twentieth century.
The production is set in 1905, in New York City (and in a segregated America). ‘Intimate Apparel’ focuses on central protagonist Esther Mills (Gloria Mampuya), a 35-year-old unmarried black seamstress living in a boarding house for women. Her landlord is Mrs. Dickson (Kirsten Alter). Esther makes intimate apparel for women ranging from high society white individuals like Mrs. Van Buren (Olivia Neary-Hatton) to prostitutes like Mayme (KhaRå Martin). Esther is in high demand for her work as a seamstress. She has set aside money over the years and has stuffed it into the quilt on her bed. She hopes one day to open a beauty parlour for black women where they will receive the same treatment as wealthy socialite white women.
Esther is also lonely. She has watched other women from the boarding house marry and leave. She longs for a husband and her own life as well. Her heart appears to lie with the Hasidic fabric shopkeeper Mr. Marks, (Jonathan Silver), from whom she buys the fabric to make the garments. Mr. Marks is also smitten with Esther; however, his strict faith does not permit him to pursue this relationship. Additionally, he is part of an arranged marriage set by his parents years ago.
An unseen mutual acquaintance introduces Esther to George Armstrong (Fode Bangoura), who works in Panama building the canal. They correspond by letters. Throughout Act One, we never see George but only hear his voice as he reads his letters. Esther is illiterate, so she has someone write for her. Soon, these letters move from formal introductions to intimate connections where George suggests he and Esther marry without seeing each other.
Great care has been taken to accurately depict the early 1900s down to minor details in the three-quarter theatre setting of the Firehall. Sarah Uwadiae’s has created four distinct playing areas. At centre stage on a raised circular dais is Esther’s room. There is a bed and a quilt stuffed with her money. A turn of the twentieth-century century foot-pumped Singer sewing machine figures prominently centre stage. Stage right is the boudoir of Mrs. Van Buren. Stage left is Mayme’s apartment where she entertains her ‘guests,’ and Mr. Marks’ fabric shop.
Frederick Kennedy’s sound design is solid in hearing the sound of the door knocks and bells as Esther moved around the stage. Jareth Li’s lighting design adroitly sets the appropriate mood. Joyce Padua’s costume designs finely replicate the early 1900s.
This ‘Intimate Apparel’ remains a gripping production. The creative team has taken great care to ensure the poetry of Nottage’s language is never overshadowed by the, at times, underlying violent tones.
Director Lisa Karen Cox clearly shows empathy for Esther and the role of women in the early 1900s. Gloria Mampuya delivers a graceful and human performance of the central character. Although not school-educated, Esther has worked diligently to reach her current position in life. Despite Esther’s illiteracy, Mampuya duly reveals the protagonist’s determination to succeed in establishing her future beauty parlour and in wanting to find a husband who will love her for who she is. While she falls prey to George Armstrong's hands, Mampuya duly maintains Esther’s dignity and worth.
Women at the turn of the twentieth century were not highly valued. Playwright Lynn Nottage shows these opposing societal standards in the socialite Mrs. Van Buren and prostitute Mayme. Olivia Neary-Hatton’s Mrs. Van Buren is vain and egotistical at first. There are moments when she, too, shows her white privilege over Esther. However, once Van Buren's backstory of a loveless marriage is revealed, Neary-Hatton's emotional outburst and desire for connection with anyone, including Esther, become heartfelt. Esther's friend, Mayme (KhaRå Martin), has personal interactions with men, of which Esther disapproves. Mayme may initially be viewed as "the tart with a heart," but Martin wisely reveals more on stage. Like Mampuya, Martin’s solid performance duly asserts dignity and worth in Mayme, elevating her to a significant influence in Esther's life.
Kirsten Alter is likeable and commanding in the role of boarding house landlady Mrs. Dickson who becomes the voice of reason in Esther’s life. It becomes interesting that Dickson is the only person who speaks the truth to Esther while the other characters all have hidden secrets lying underneath.
Lynn Nottage effectively reveals how patriarchal societal norms affect the life paths of her male characters.
As shy fabric retailer Mr. Marks, Jonathan Silver's initial bashfulness in concealing his feelings for Esther remains quite touching. Director Cox skillfully utilizes this initial meekness to heighten the sexual synchronicity between Esther and Mr. Marks. Whenever the retailer brings forth new fabric, Silver lovingly and intimately strokes the material with his fingers as he presents it to Esther. Mampuya responds by touching the material with the same long finger strokes. These scenes are intensely passionate moments between the two without touching each other.
Throughout Act One, we only hear Fode Bangoura’s voice read the letters as George Armstrong. Bangoura’s voice is mellifluous and sultry. As the letters become more intimately personal throughout Act One, Mampuya dreamily listens to them read like a bride on her wedding night and finely responds as one. She is a woman who hopes George is the one who will sweep her away and allow her to open the beauty parlour.
However, all is not right as Mrs. Dickson suspects. When the audience finally sees George at the end of Act One, he is not what his letters sound like. For instance, when the audience first sees George, his ill-fitting suit with the slightly ripped fedora indicates he is not the man he says he is.
Bangoura delivers more than just the proverbial ‘snake oil’ salesman in his performance. His George Armstrong is deceptively cunning and dangerous, filled with a desire for destruction. His relationship with Esther is not one of sexual attraction but rather a violent and twisted connection lacking in passion.
Final Comment: In her Director’s Note in the Program, Lisa Karen Cox writes that she is deeply vested in celebrating and sharing Esther’s perspective (and the perspective of others that look like her) with the theatre-going public. While Esther may not be ‘school educated,’ this production clearly shows a woman who is deeply intelligent because she has lived life and will continue to do so despite repressive societal standards for women.
The audience is richer for this experience as this terrific cast has successfully captured Cox’s wish and heartfully honours it.
Please see ‘Intimate Apparel.’
Running time: approximately two hours with one intermission.
‘Intimate Apparel’ runs until August 27 at the Firehall Theatre, 185 South Street. For tickets, call the Box Office at (613) 382-7020 or visit 1000islandsplayhouse.com.
THOUSAND ISLANDS PLAYHOUSE presents
‘Intimate Apparel’ by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Lisa Karen Cox
Set Designer: Sarah Uwadiae
Costume Designer: Joyce Padua
Lighting Designer: Jareth Li
Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy
Stage Manager: Rebecca Eamon Campbell
Intimacy Choreographer: Corey Tazmania
Performers: Gloria Mampuya, Kirsten Alter, Olivia Neary-Hatton, Jonathan Silver, KhaRå Martin, Fode Bangoura